After work, the three young women giggle and pull at one another’s hair. But when questioned, they admit their common secret: They use false papers to work illegally here at the factory that makes mobile phone components for one of the world’s biggest brands, Samsung.
They are 14 and 15 years old, below the legal working age in China. A few weeks ago, they were living at home with their parents in a small village a six-hour drive from here, finishing middle school.
“We also worked at a factory last summer,” said one of the young girls, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of getting fired. “But it was much worse. We were making Christmas ornaments, and some workers got huge blisters on their hands.”
The presence of at least three child workers at the factory in southern China casts a cloud over the labor practices of Samsung and its suppliers. A little more than a week ago, Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant, said in an annual review of conditions at its manufacturing centers that it had found no evidence of underage workers in its global supply chain.
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In recent years, Samsung has promoted its efforts to monitor and evaluate suppliers and manufacturing operations around the world, noting that the policies were aimed at protecting workers and preventing minors from being hired.
For instance, even though the legal working age in China is 16, Samsung considers that too young, and so its suppliers are instructed not to hire workers under 18. To ensure they do not cheat, Samsung says, it has forced all of them to install a sophisticated facial recognition system on factory sites.
But this week, the three young girls met with a reporter from The New York Times after they were initially identified by the labor rights group China Labor Watch.
According to the girls, they were part of a “labor dispatch system” that often funnels child laborers to factories during the summer to help meet a surge in orders that comes just ahead of the fall and winter shopping seasons in the United States and Europe.
“As part of our pledge against child labor, Samsung routinely conducts inspections to monitor our suppliers to ensure they follow our commitment,” Samsung said in a statement. “We are urgently looking into the latest allegations and will take appropriate measures in accordance with our policies to prevent any cases of child labor in our suppliers.”
Many global brands have struggled with labor problems in their Chinese operations. In the past few years, Apple has come under scrutiny in China over labor and safety problems, notably a spate of worker suicides and unrest at facilities run by its biggest contract manufacturer, the Taiwanese company Foxconn.
Apple declined to comment for this article, but the company has said it has taken steps to address labor issues in its supply chain.